If There’s Magic Hereby Brie Stimson January 2, 2018
From the very beginning immigrants and refugees has been one of their core causes.
“The story that is often told is that in 1918 a group of women went down to the border because it was right after World War I when Jews were trying to get into this country,” CEO Michael Hopkins explained. “They thought that coming in from Tijuana would possibly be an easier way to get into the country. They were stuck on the other side of the border in Mexico, and the women went down there to provide food, water and shelter.”
Rose Neumann is considered the founder of JFS and was the president from 1919 until 1946. “A lot of the stories around Rose Neumann … was that she didn’t take no as an answer,” Michael said. “And so she sort of prided herself on breaking the rules. She sort of prided herself on doing whatever was required to help people, recognizing that a lot of the individuals that were falling through the cracks and falling on tough times, the system wasn’t working for them. So she kind of went out of her way.” At the time, people told Rose “that Mexico wasn’t their concern, you know, that she shouldn’t be going to Mexico … that it was out of this country … but in the name of helping somebody she didn’t really know boundaries.”
Michael says that is a spirit they try to keep alive today. “Whatever it takes to go that extra mile and help somebody – and literally back then it was that extra mile,” he said.
Immigration is still at the core of JFS’ work. Most recently, after President Trump revoked DACA, which allowed undocumented people brought into the U.S. as children the ability to work, study and live in the country without fear of deportation, JFS immediately set to work to help as many as they could of the approximately 800,000 people whose future in this country was suddenly unclear. JFS had been working with Dreamers (as they are called) for years, helping them to apply for DACA status and making sure their paperwork was correct. After Trump’s September revocation, they held DACA renewal workshops and counseled Dreamers on their options.
Michael says many of the same services JFS offered in 1918 they are still providing today. “Providing food, emergency shelter, helping people find jobs, welcoming refugees, those were things that were central to the agency 100 years ago, and they still are today,” he said. “One hundred years ago, I don’t think anyone in the Jewish community spoke of domestic violence, I don’t think anyone in the Jewish community spoke of addiction. Homelessness was not a central issue in our community in San Diego, so some things have changed, but many of the same compelling needs that existed then exist today. The question is as we kind of go through our hundredth year what will stay the same? What will be core to our agency and what will continue to … evolve.”
Michael said he remembers a search committee asking him about six years ago where he thought the agency would be in five years. “I actually reframed the question, and I said I’d like to talk about where I see the agency as we turn 100 and as we approach our next 100,” he said. “So for me, it’s not actually about the moment or being 100, it’s about being prepared … for the next century of service.”
Michael said before the 1980s JFS primarily served the Jewish community, but at that time they began to serve the whole community more broadly. They began resettling refugees and leveraging money that allowed them to grow. “A lot of the funding for our older adult programs, senior meals, transportation, comes out of the Older Americans Act, so in the 80s we began to take advantage of funding opportunities that allowed us to expand the mission,” he said. “The evolution was that … until the 50s we were led by volunteers and apparently in the mid-50s we became professionalized where the agency had its first director.”
The agency was formed by women’s groups and every executive until Michael has been a woman.
They decided to give him a chance, Marie quipped.
The agency has always been focused on women. “We always understood that in serving women … that often meant that children were the beneficiaries of the service,” Michael explained. Seventy-five percent of their clients are women. They have a girls give back program, a ladies leadership program, and they provide low interest loans for people with damaged credit that is almost exclusively a clientele of single mothers.
“When you help women, you help the entire family because many times it’s women who are the caretakers,” Marie told me. “So if you’re helping women you’re not just helping them you’re helping the entire family.”
Their April 21, 2018 gala will honor all the women who have made the agency what it is today, “because we feel in honoring the organization … we have [to] honor our women as well,” Marie said.
Michael recently spoke to 150 JFS employees about his vision for the agency’s future. “I commented that I wanted to lead JFS in a way where we were respectful and as well-regarded as a 100-year-old organization, and at the same time I wanted to function like we were a startup. And so this balance between kind of the sage who has the wisdom of 100 years of serving our community, but at the same time … the energy and the passion and the creativity and the appetite for innovation that startups have.”
“In some ways the work we do today combines both of those nuggets. On one hand we have been distributing food for a really long time, but I would tell you the way we distribute it at our Corner Pantry is considered best in class. Clients get to pick out their own food. They’re not just given a bag. There’s a point system geared toward more nutritious food. In addition to food, there’s diapers and toiletries and pet food, and in addition to all of that, unlike most food distributions, there’s case management available. Because our real goal is to not have individuals come week after week, month after month for food, but eventually to create some self-sufficiency in their lives.”
The agency also has many volunteers who give their time to the BIGPals program, working in administration, giving holiday gifts for Embrace-A-Family, helping in the food pantry or driving the Foodmobile or for “On The Go,” which helps seniors get to personal or medical appointments. Their objective with seniors is to help them stay independent in their homes. “Other than the airport we’ll drive a senior wherever they need to go,” Michael explained. “And with low income families we provide a low-interest car loan. So transporation is an issue for both. I would say the common thread for the most part is that it’s folks who are struggling financially.”
As they start to navigate the next 100 years, they are realizing policy has to become a part of what they do.
“For a long time it was good enough for nonprofits to do good work,” Michael began. “I think particularly over the last five years we’ve learned that we also have to get involved in policy conversations … Our experience has been that when we’ve met with elected officials they actually want to know what we’re saying and they want to know why it is that we think these situations are occurring.”
They are also doing their part to make a safe space for homeless families to sleep. Every night 150 to 200 people (mostly families who don’t want to be separated at a shelter) come to spend the night in the their car in the JFS parking lot. “As we leave, people are parking in the parking lot so as we go home every night we are reminded about why we do this work,” Marie told me. Marie has a fulltime job aside from her volunteer work on the board. “The only other thing that would make me commit as I have is the feeling of making a difference,” she said. “It’s small, just a little bit, but feeling that we’re making a difference.”
Before I left, Marie read a letter to me from a member of the board, which she calls her “if only” letter.
“If only my family had known about Jewish Family Service, my family could have had a better life,” she read. “My brother could have had a BIGPal to help him grow up, maybe my mother wouldn’t have grown so isolated and unhappy in her later years. What a difference it would have made.”
“I just don’t want anyone to have to say “if only” in the future,” she said, turning to me. “I just want us to be there.”